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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #74: Nudge

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

It's never been a secret that I'm an incrementalist at heart, that I believe public policy to be an iterative, not revolutionary exercise. This costs me street cred with some on my left, but I also believe that there are multiple roles to play in the mosaic of our community dialogue. Some of us are fated to push the envelope, some to lob idea grenades, some to cleave to policy preferences with unswerving fervor. This moves the debate, to be certain. There are also those of us who are better-suited to the ground game, to the inch-by-inch trench warfare of tangible, often frustratingly modest advances in public policy. Those of us who go to the negotiating table knowing that while a 5% COLA increase for public retirees would be fair and deserved, a 2% increase can be passed and beats the hell out of nothing at all. Yeah, yeah, I know the argument that some will make - ask for way more than you need and then accept the fallback. It rarely works that way in my experience, either as a parent or as an elected official. This was the praxis of Hillary Clinton's much-maligned comment that the world needs MLKs and LBJs both - those demanding the whole pie of justice all at once and those who can wrestle the dragon to free up one slice at a time.

Thaler and Sunstein's book "Nudge" isn't exactly about that. It's about how small adjustments to choice architecture can move people toward better decision-making that improves their their individual and our collective lives and yet doesn't infringe on personal freedoms. We encounter things like this every day - the classic example is where items are placed in the grocery store. Placing healthier food alternatives in more convenient and visible locations tends to increase their consumption by a measurable percentage. Convenience and ease drive human behavior far more than do complicated arguments about our welfare. An error we Democrats often make is that we believe the data supports our positions. And it often does. But we turn that data into a cudgel, bludgeoning voters with 10,000-word essays with seven-syllable words and reams of charts in the earnest belief that we're going to win the debate. Meanwhile, the other side offers up banal platitudes and comforting rhetoric that "feels" right and doesn't ask for self-examination or sacrifice. When presented with a choice between feeling like the hero or the villain, people are going to chose the former unless they enjoy guilt-wallowing. When presented with a choice between lower or higher taxes, less or more regulation, optimistic or pessimistic narratives, people are going to choose the options that make them feel better.

(I know many of you who will argue that your nobility and sense of justice allows you to self-abnegate for the greater good. God bless you. You are a minority of humans, and always will be. Basing a strategy for the advancement of progressive principles on "getting people to accept that they're the problem and need to make massive changes to their world views" is not a winning approach.)

So, Nudge. Instead of banning sugary treats, put them in the back of the store and put the apples and bananas at the checkout stand. It accomplishes more than all the hand-wringing and garment-rending in the world. Given where America stands, I would be beyond delighted to simply move in the right direction instead of mooning for the perfect utopian solutions. Voting for Ralph Nader and Jill Stein or staying home because none of the candidates make your heart go pitter-pat isn't heroic or noble or pure. It gets us Donald Trump. Do we have to work to nominate better candidates? Yup. But we also have to know how to not throw the ball forty yards down the field on fourth and one.

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